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The J Curve: A New Way to Understand Why Nations Rise and Fall

The J Curve: A New Way to Understand Why Nations Rise and Fall

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The J Curve: A New Way to Understand Why Nations Rise and Fall

2.5/5 (2 ratings)
467 pages
7 hours
Sep 15, 2006


Locate nations on the J Curve -- left for authoritarian, right for democratic. Then figure out how to force those on the left to open their societies, rather than encouraging them to shut them tighter by further isolating them. The West's isolation of Kim Jong-il's North Korea gives him the cover he needs to extend his brutal regime (the mistake the U.S. made for a long time with Saddam Hussein and Castro); in Saudi Arabia, western governments should encourage manageable change before the country breaks apart; they should help strengthen China's economy so it can further liberalize; they must encourage Israel to decide what kind of country it will be.

Filled with imaginative and surprising examples of how to correct outworn political ideas, The J Curve points the way for western governments to lead the way to a realistic political balance and a healthier economic future.
Sep 15, 2006

About the author

Ian Bremmer is a political scientist who helps business leaders, policymakers, and the general public make sense of the world around them. He is president and founder of Eurasia Group, the world’s leading political risk research and consulting firm, and GZERO Media, a company dedicated to providing intelligent and engaging coverage of international affairs. Ian is also a frequent guest on CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, the BBC, Bloomberg, and many other television stations around the world. Ian has published ten books, including the New York Times bestseller Us vs. Them: The Failure of Globalism which examines the rise of populism across the world. He also serves as the foreign affairs columnist and editor at large for Time magazine. He currently teaches at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs and previously was a professor at New York University.

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Inside the book

Top quotes

  • The J Curve: Nations to the left of the dip in the J curve are less open; nations to the right are more open. Nations higher on the graph are more stable; those that are lower are less stable.

  • Some states on the left side of the curve, many of them friends of the United States, recognize the futility of trying to maintain stability by indefinitely maintaining isolation. These governments hope to introduce reform, but at a pace they can manage.

  • Movement Along the J Curve: Movement from left to right along the J curve demonstrates that a country that is stable because it is closed must go through a period of dangerous instability as it opens to the outside world.

  • The left slope of the J curve is much steeper than the right side because a country that is stable only because it’s closed to the outside world can fall into a deep crisis very quickly.

  • That’s why the J curve isn’t a U curve. There aren’t many regimes left that can maintain old-style isolation, because the democra-tization of information makes it hard to keep an entire nation in the dark.

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The J Curve - Ian Bremmer


Chapter One

Stability, Openness,

and the J Curve

On February 10, 2005, North Korea’s state-run Pyongyang Radio informed its captive audience that the president of the United States had developed a plan to engulf the world in a sea of flames and to rule the planet through the forced imposition of freedom. In self-defense, the newsreader continued, North Korea had manufactured nuclear weapons.

That evening, Rick Nieman of the Netherlands’ RTL Television asked U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to respond to Pyongyang’s assertion that North Korea needed nuclear weapons to cope with the Bush administration’s ever more undisguised policy to isolate…the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Rice countered: This is a state that has been isolated completely for its entire history…. They have been told that if they simply make the decision…to give up their nuclear weapons and nuclear-weapons program, to dismantle them verifiably and irreversibly, there is a completely new path available to them…. So the North Koreans should reassess this and try to end their own isolation.¹

That’s the official U.S. policy on North Korea: If North Korea submits to the complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement of its nuclear program, Washington will end North Korea’s isolation and support the integration of Kim Jong-Il’s regime into the international community. If, on the other hand, North Korea persists in developing its nuclear capacity, Washington will further deepen North Korea’s isolation.

To many, this policy is grounded in common sense. If North Korea begins to behave as Washington wants, the United States should reward the regime. If it does not, Washington should further seal it off. If Kim will quiet the relentless drumbeat of war and renounce his campaign to build an arsenal of the world’s most destructive weapons, Washington should allow North Korea to escape its wretched isolation. If, on the other hand, North Korea insists on causing trouble, bargains in bad faith, ratchets up tensions in East Asia, violates its agreements, and perhaps even sells the world’s most dangerous weapons to the world’s most dangerous people, the regime must be swiftly and soundly punished. Kim Jong-Il and those who administer his government must be persuaded that his broken promises and misdeeds doom his regime to perpetual quarantine.

If this policy is properly applied, so the thinking goes, the message will be received far beyond North Korea. Common sense demands that Washington demonstrate that America stands ready to achieve its foreign- and security-policy goals with the sweetest carrots and sharpest sticks available. So the thinking goes.

But, as we’ll see in the next chapter, this approach has failed to help Washington achieve its goals in North Korea. In fact, it has produced policies that have had virtually the opposite of their intended effects. Of course, U.S. foreign policies that produce the reverse of their intended consequences are not limited to either North Korea or the George W. Bush administration. Policy failures over many decades in Iraq, Iran, Cuba, Russia, and many other states demonstrate that policymakers need an entirely new geopolitical framework, one that captures the way decision-makers within these states calculate their interests and make their choices—and one that offers insight into how more effective U.S. policies can be formulated.

There is a counterintuitive relationship between a nation’s stability and its openness, both to the influences of the outside world and within its borders. Certain states—North Korea, Burma, Belarus, Zimbabwe—are stable precisely because they are closed. The slightest influence on their citizens from the outside could push the most rigid of these states toward dangerous instability. If half the people of North Korea saw twenty minutes of CNN (or of Al Jazeera for that matter), they would realize how egregiously their government lies to them about life beyond the walls. That realization could provoke widespread social upheaval. The slightest improvement in the ability of a country’s citizens to communicate with one another—the introduction of telephones, e-mail, or text-messaging into an authoritarian state—can likewise undermine the state’s monopoly on information.

Other states—the United States, Japan, Sweden—are stable because they are invigorated by the forces of globalization. These states are able to withstand political conflict, because their citizens—and international investors—know that political and social problems within them will be peacefully resolved by institutions that are independent of one another and that the electorate will broadly accept the resolution as legitimate. The institutions, not the personalities, matter in such a state.

Yet, for a country that is stable because it’s closed to become a country that is stable because it’s open, it must go through a transitional period of dangerous instability. Some states, like South Africa, survive that journey. Others, like Yugoslavia, collapse. Both will be visited in Chapter Four. It is more important than ever to recognize the dangers implicit in these processes. In a world of lightning-fast capital flight, social unrest, weapons of mass destruction, and transnational terrorism, these transformations are everybody’s business.²

The J curve is a tool designed to help policymakers develop more insightful and effective foreign policies. It’s meant to help investors understand the risks they face as they invest abroad. It’s also intended to help anyone curious about international politics better understand how leaders make decisions and the impact of those decisions on the global order. As a model of political risk, the J curve can help us predict how states will respond to political and economic shocks, and where their vulnerabilities lie as globalization erodes the stability of authoritarian states.

J curves aren’t new to models of political and economic behavior. In the 1950s, James Davies developed a quite different curve that expressed the dangers inherent in a gap between a people’s rising economic expectations and their actual circumstances. Another J curve measured the relationship between a state’s trade deficit and the value of its currency. The purpose of the J curve in this book is quite different and much broader. It is intended to describe the political and economic forces that revitalize some states and push others toward collapse.


The J Curve: Nations to the left of the dip in the J curve are less open; nations to the right are more open. Nations higher on the graph are more stable; those that are lower are less stable.

What is the J curve? Imagine a graph on which the vertical axis measures stability and the horizontal axis measures political and economic openness to the outside world. (See figure above.) Each nation whose level of stability and openness we want to measure appears as a data point on the graph. These data points, taken together, produce a J shape. Nations to the left of the dip in the J are less open; nations to the right are more open. Nations higher on the graph are more stable; those that are lower are less stable.

In general, the stability of countries on the left side of the J curve depends on individual leaders—Stalin, Mao, Idi Amin. The stability of states on the right side of the curve depends on institutions—parliaments independent of the executive, judiciaries independent of both, nongovernmental organizations, labor unions, citizens’ groups. Movement from left to right along the J curve demonstrates that a country that is stable because it is closed must go through a period of dangerous instability as it opens to the outside world. (See figure.) There are no shortcuts, because authoritarian elites cannot be quickly replaced with institutions whose legitimacy is widely accepted.


Movement Along the J Curve: Movement from left to right along the J curve demonstrates that a country that is stable because it is closed must go through a period of dangerous instability as it opens to the outside world.

Openness is a measure of the extent to which a nation is in harmony with the crosscurrents of globalization—the processes by which people, ideas, information, goods, and services cross international borders at unprecedented speed. How many books written in a foreign language are translated into the local language? What percentage of a nation’s citizens have access to media outlets whose signals originate from beyond their borders? How many are able to make an international phone call? How much direct contact do local people have with foreigners? How free are a nation’s citizens to travel abroad? How much foreign direct investment is there in the country? How much local money is invested outside the country? How much cross-border trade exists? There are many more such questions.

But openness also refers to the flow of information and ideas within a country’s borders. Are citizens free to communicate with one another? Do they have access to information about events in other regions of the country? Are freedoms of speech and assembly legally established? How transparent are the processes of local and national government? Are there free flows of trade across regions within the state? Do citizens have access to, and influence in, the processes of governance?

Stability has two crucial components: the state’s capacity to withstand shocks and its ability to avoid producing them. A nation is only unstable if both are absent. Saudi Arabia remains stable because, while it has produced numerous shocks over the last decade, it remains capable of riding out the tremors. The House of Saud is likely to continue to absorb political shocks without buckling for at least the next several years. Kazakhstan is stable for the opposite reason. Its capacity to withstand a major political earthquake is questionable but, over the course of its fifteen-year history as a sovereign state, it hasn’t created its own political crises. How Kazakhstan might withstand a near-term political shock, should one occur, is far more open to question than in Saudi Arabia, where the real stability challenges are much longer-term.

To illustrate how countries with varying levels of stability react to a similar shock, consider the following: An election is held to choose a head of state. A winner is announced under circumstances challenged by a large number of voters. The nation’s highest judicial body generates controversy as it rules on a ballot recount. That happened in Taiwan in 2003 and Ukraine in 2004. Demonstrations closed city streets, the threat of civil violence loomed, local economies suffered, and international observers speculated on the continued viability of both governments.* Of course, similar events erupted in the United States in 2000, without any significant implications for the stability of the country or its financial markets.

Stability is the capacity to absorb such shocks. Anyone can feel the difference between a ride in a car with good shock absorbers and in one that has no shock absorbers. Stability fortifies a nation to withstand political, economic, and social turbulence. Stability enables a nation to remain a nation.

Levels of Stability

A highly stable country is reinforced by mature state institutions. Social tensions in such a state are manageable: security concerns exist within expected parameters and produce costs that are predictable. France may suffer a series of public-sector strikes that paralyze the country for several weeks. When these strikes occur, no one fears that France will renounce its commitment to democracy and an open society. Nor do they fear these shocks might generate a challenge from outside the country. No one worries that political battles within France might tempt Germany to invade—as it did three times between 1870 and 1940.

States with moderate stability have economic and political structures that allow them to function reasonably effectively; but there are identifiable challenges to effective governance. When Jiang Zemin passed leadership of the Chinese government, the Communist Party, and the People’s Liberation Army to Hu Jintao, very few inside China publicly questioned the move’s legitimacy. If any had—if Chinese workers had taken to the streets as French workers so often do—the state would have moved quickly to contain the demonstrations. Whether China’s rigid, political structure can indefinitely survive the intensifying social dislocations provoked by its explosive economic growth is another matter.

Low-stability states still function—they are able to enforce existing laws and their authority is generally recognized. But they struggle to effectively implement policies or to otherwise change the country’s political direction. These states are not well prepared to cope with sudden shocks. As an oil-exporting nation, Nigeria benefits from high energy prices. But its central government is unable to enforce the law in the Niger Delta region, where most of Nigeria’s oil is located. A group called the Niger Delta People’s Volunteer Force has repeatedly threatened all-out war against the central government unless it grants the region self-determination. The rebels briefly shut down 40 percent of Nigeria’s oil production in 2003 and forced President Olusegun Obasanjo to negotiate with them. The problem flared again in 2005 and 2006.

A state with no stability is a failed state; it can neither implement nor enforce government policy. Such a country can fragment, it can be taken over by outside forces, or it can descend into chaos. Somalia fell apart in 1991, when several tribal militias joined forces to unseat the country’s dictator, and then turned on each other. Since then, warlords have ruled most of the country’s territory. Their rivalries have probably killed half a million and made refugees of another 750,000. More than a dozen attempts to restore order, mostly backed by Western benefactors, have failed. Any Somali leader who intends to restore Mogadishu’s authority over all of Somalia’s territory will have to disarm tens of thousands of gunmen, stop the steady stream of arms trafficking, set up a working justice system, and revitalize a stricken economy. Meanwhile, there are warlords, extremists, smugglers, and probably terrorists with a clear interest in scuttling the process. And while political conflicts in France don’t encourage Germany to invade, there are clear threats to any future stability in Somalia from just across the border. One of the few African nations offering to send peacekeeping troops to help Somalia reestablish civil order is Ethiopia, a neighbor with a long history of troublemaking there. The arrival of any foreign troops, especially Ethiopians, could reignite Somalia’s civil war.

In August 2005, South Africa went public with concerns that its neighbor Zimbabwe stood on the brink of becoming just such a failed state. Representatives of South Africa’s government said a sizable loan designed to rescue Robert Mugabe’s country from default on International Monetary Fund obligations might be conditioned on Mugabe’s willingness to include the opposition in a new government of national unity. South Africa has good reason for concern. When state failure strikes your neighbor, the resulting chaos can undermine your stability as well, as refugees, armed conflict, and disease spill across borders.

Democracy and Stability

Democracy is not the only—or even the most important—factor determining a nation’s stability. To illustrate the point, consider again the U.S. presidential election of 2000. Did America sail through the political storm with little real damage to its political institutions simply because the United States is a democracy? Taiwan is a democracy too, albeit a less mature one, but its citizens felt the jolt of every pothole on the ride through its electoral crisis. In Turkmenistan—not a democracy by any definition—the open rigging of presidential elections produces hardly a ripple, nothing like the unrest produced in Taiwan. Much of Turkmenistan’s stability is based on the extent to which its authoritarianism is taken for granted; a rigged election is not the exception. Democratic or not, countries in which stability is in question are more susceptible to sudden crises, more likely to unleash their own conflicts, and more vulnerable to the worst effects of political shock. Yet, for the short term, authoritarian Turkmenistan must be considered more stable than democratic Taiwan.

At first glance, the J curve seems to imply that democracies are the opposite of authoritarian states. The reality is more complicated. In terms of stability—the vertical axis on the J curve—police states have more in common with democracies than they do with badly run authoritarian regimes. In other words, in terms of stability, Algeria has more in common with the United States than it does with Afghanistan. Consolidated democratic regimes—Germany, Norway, and the United States—are the most stable of states. They can withstand terrible shocks without a threat to the integrity of the state itself. Poorly functioning states—Somalia, Moldova, or Haiti—are the least likely to hold together. But consolidated authoritarian regimes—Cuba, Uzbekistan, and Burma—often have real staying power.

The Elements of Stability

A nation’s stability is composed of many elements, and while one of these elements may be reinforcing the state’s overall stability, another may be undermining it. On the one hand, Turkey’s possible entry into the European Union enhances the nation’s political and social stability. So long as Ankara remains on track for EU accession, Turkey’s government has incentive to implement the reforms the Europeans require—reforms that strengthen the independence of the nation’s political institutions, increase media freedoms, decrease the army’s influence in politics, and protect the rights of minority groups, such as Turkish Kurds, who might otherwise provoke unrest. The accession process also binds Turkey more closely to European institutions.

On the other hand, the presence in northern Iraq of militant members of the Kurdistan Workers Party heightens concern that instability there could spill over into Kurdish communities in southeastern Turkey and threaten Turkey’s security. Ankara is also concerned that, if Iraqi Kurds achieve greater autonomy, they may seek to regain control of the oil-rich northern Iraqi town of Kirkuk, in order to create the financial base for a future independent Kurdish state with claims on Turkish territory.

History, geography, culture, and other factors give each state its own particular strengths and vulnerabilities. As a consequence, each state has its own J curve, though each curve retains the same basic shape. North Korea’s J curve is much lower than Saudi Arabia’s, because North Korea lacks the resources, like oil, that can raise stability at any given level of openness. When oil prices rise, a country like Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, or Nigeria brings in more revenue and can use the extra cash to create jobs, buy a new weapons system, fund a social safety net, hire more people to monitor Internet traffic, or any number of other measures that increase short-term political stability. India’s J curve is higher than Pakistan’s because its history of multiparty politics allows it to better absorb shocks to the system than the more brittle governments of its neighbor, where the military has a well-established history of intervention and suppression of dissent. Government crackdowns enhance stability in the short run, but overreliance on them for peace and tranquillity breeds underlying social tensions that must be continually managed. Over time, the management of these tensions saps government resources and energy.


If stability is a measure of a state’s capacity to implement government policy in the instance of shock, how do we define shock? There are natural disasters—a drought in Sudan, an earthquake in Japan, a tsunami that destroys lives in Thailand and sends floodwaters raging across coastal Indonesia. There are man-made shocks—the assassination of an influential Lebanese politician, a terrorist bombing in the Philippines, a flood of refugees in China, a secessionist crisis in Mexico. There are shocks that originate inside a country—a government default in Argentina. There are shocks that come from outside—the 9/11 attacks.

No country, stable or unstable, has the capacity to prevent all shocks from happening. But less stable states are more likely both to produce their own shocks and to experience shocks from beyond their borders. Shocks in an unstable state are also more likely to be larger in magnitude—ill-considered environmental policies make weather extremes more likely; inadequate health care provokes more frequent outbreaks of infectious disease; poor economic planning raises youth unemployment.

It’s important not to confuse shocks with instability. Over the next five to ten years, reasonably stable left-side-of-the-curve states like Syria, Venezuela, Iran, and Russia may be forced to absorb a number of shocks. Syria may face serious divisions within its ruling elite. Venezuela could experience a return to widespread labor unrest. Iran may wander into military confrontation with Israel. A drop in the price of oil could punch holes in Russian, Venezuelan, and Iranian coffers and produce civil strife. But the effects of these potential shocks are likely to be limited. Syria remains one of the most effective police states in the world. Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez remains popular enough to fend off direct challenges to his presidency. Iran’s security apparatus remains loyal to the ruling religious conservatives, and Russia has yet to produce a viable and dynamic political opposition. Serious cracks may appear in the foundation of any of these countries ten years down the road. They’re all vulnerable in the long term to challenges to their immature political institutions. But none of them are headed for real unrest this year or next. For now, stability in each of these states is relatively high.

If the worst shocks don’t materialize, unstable countries can survive for a surprisingly long time. They just have to be lucky. Take Ukraine: before the election crisis in late 2004, Ukraine’s stability was never hit with a large enough wave to sweep it away. In the turbulent years in which Leonid Kuchma held the presidency, a series of low-level controversies rattled the country. Ukraine endured widespread social discontent and substantial poverty, with living conditions little improved from Soviet times. Demonstrations demanding Kuchma’s resignation and parliamentary no-confidence votes were common. Russia regularly interfered in Ukraine’s domestic politics—even threatening at times to cut off most of the country’s supply of natural gas. Despite all this, Ukraine avoided the big one—the shock substantial enough to push Ukraine’s government out to sea.

The Berlin Wall once seemed the world’s most formidable barrier. It was an illusion. In their haste to build the Wall literally overnight, East German soldiers added pebbles to low-quality cement to make the Wall sturdier. It stood for more than a quarter century as a symbol of the impenetrability of the Communist world for those on the western side and the futility of hoping for a better life for those to the east. But in 1989, a few blows with a hammer and chisel brought down the Wall with the same stunning speed with which the nations of the Warsaw Pact slid down the steep left side of the J curve toward irreversible change. Without the swing of the hammer, the Wall might still stand. But once the shocks of 1989 began, the Berlin Wall was no match for even a single solid blow.

Unchallenged instability does not necessarily lead to crisis. But the probability of state failure is highest when governments have the least political capital with which to respond to turmoil—the very moment when these states are most unstable. Think of state failure as the pull of a magnet under the J curve. As a country approaches the bottom, one sudden shock will have a destabilizing effect and can easily lead to collapse. An August 1991 coup attempt against Mikhail Gorbachev failed. But his government never recovered from the blow to its legitimacy produced by the fact that it was Boris Yeltsin and other reformers, not Gorbachev, who faced down the coup plot. Four months later, the Soviet Union ceased to exist.

The nation-state that replaced it—the Russian Federation—narrowly missed some serious political shocks of its own in the early and mid 1990s. The 1993 standoff between the Kremlin and the Russian Duma ended only when Boris Yeltsin shelled his country’s parliament building. A war with Chechen rebels turned disastrously costly and had to be abandoned. Despite all this, the country avoided the series of earthquakes that were devastating the former Yugoslavia. Russian markets were chugging along with the high confidence—if not quite irrational exuberance—of international investors.

But then Russia’s luck ran out when a real shock hit. In August 1998, a newly appointed, out-of-his-

depth prime minister, Sergei Kiriyenko, made a political decision to simultaneously devalue the Russian ruble and default on the government’s debt. Investors quickly discovered that Russia’s calm had been the eye of a hurricane. Only a deliberate climb up the left side of the J curve toward more authoritarian, less transparent governance ultimately helped Russian elites restore political and economic stability.

This raises an important point about the shape of the J curve: the left side of the curve is much steeper because a little consolidation and control can provide a lot of stability. It is faster and easier to close a country than to open it. It’s more efficient to reestablish order by declaring martial law than by passing legislation that promotes freedom of the press. Nations with little history of openness and pluralism have a habit of responding to turmoil with a centralization of state power; that habit is a hard one to break. The Kremlin’s recent moves toward authoritarianism are therefore not surprising. Russia’s government committed itself to democratic reform only in 1991—following a thousand years of authoritarianism.

Russia’s crisis makes another point about stability: it takes a lot more than money to build it. Filling the world’s deepest pockets of instability with cash will not by itself protect a state from the worst long-term effects of a political shock. The Marshall Plan to rebuild countries devastated by World War II was a success because it quickly mobilized resources to help restore normalcy to nations with a history of stable governance. Not all states have such a history.

Most developing countries have no experience of stable normalcy to return to. Throwing money at social and political problems in order to finance the construction of new infrastructure ignores the problem revealed by the J curve: developing countries become less stable before they become more so. It’s one thing to build a new parliament building. It’s quite another to populate the building with legislators dedicated to pluralist governance. The latter takes time, and before it can be achieved, the process of building an open state requires a period of significant instability.

Finally, some kinds of shock can be minimized. A nation can avoid unnecessary and destabilizing actions that bring a state into conflict with other nations or with its own citizens. Visionary leaders like Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and David Ben-Gurion, for example, limited their new states’territorial ambitions when failure to do so might have compromised their ability to build stability at home.

Capital Must be Spent

Economic reform—especially reform to begin a transition from a centrally planned to a market economy—creates enormous social dislocations. Inefficient industries have to be closed; workforces have to be downsized. This downsizing swells the rolls of the unemployed, lowers living standards, decimates aspirations, and may well provoke dangerous unrest. The most volatile moment for any emerging market—and the time when the reform process is most likely to fail—is precisely at the inflection point between the two systems. Governments have a finite amount of economic capital at their disposal to maintain a functioning state. Reforms require the expenditure of that capital. That’s why economic reform is destabilizing.

The same holds true for political reform. Political capital—the consent, or at least the acquiescence, of the governed—is as precious as economic capital. Movement from a command political structure to a consolidated, effective democracy requires that this capital be spent. As a government undertakes political reform—either voluntarily or as the result of processes beyond its control—the account risks running into deficit. An example: Russian President Vladimir Putin recognizes that his country’s social safety net is fiscally unsustainable. Because his popularity rating has long been at 70 percent, he has some capital to spend on reforms that, among their least desirable consequences, sharply undermine the purchasing power of pensioners. Once those reforms are implemented, Russia’s senior citizens feel the pinch, and some of them take to the streets. Putin blames others for the reform program’s worst effects, but his popularity falls. Street demonstrations encourage Russia’s would-be opposition to challenge the now-

less-popular president on other issues. Investors express concern that other needed reforms may now be postponed as Putin seeks to refill the Kremlin’s political coffers with new capital.

Brazil’s President Luis Inácio Lula da Silva is swept into power by previously disenfranchised voters who hope the country’s first left-wing chief executive will aggressively spend government revenue to reduce the wealth gap between Brazil’s richest and poorest citizens. But because Lula is enormously popular, he has a war chest of political capital to spend on another urgent priority—a demonstration to international investors that he will honor the promise of his predecessor to reserve a preestablished percentage of Brazil’s government revenue for the repayment of international debt. Lula has the political capital to spend on this unpopular move—and he spends it.

Bowing to pressure from within and without, Egypt announces it will hold a multicandidate presidential election. Egypt’s rulers have not historically felt obliged to factor domestic approval ratings into their decisions as directly as the presidents of Russia and Brazil now do. But they too have domestic constraints to consider as they create policy. They must let off pressure for change in increments to avoid unrest—even a political explosion.

The world’s most authoritarian leaders hold significant political capital. Kim Jong-Il, Fidel Castro, and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko have full control over their countries’ levers of authority: the police, army, legislature, and judiciary. As long as that remains true, very little threatens the continued rule of these regimes. As authoritarian leaders spend political capital and institute reform, political opposition groups may gain the capacity to mobilize and challenge the existing system. The countries become less stable. That’s why leaders like Kim, Castro, and Lukashenko don’t institute political or economic reforms unless they believe their survival may depend on it.

The Precipice

The left slope of the J curve is much steeper than the right side because a country that is stable only because it’s closed to the outside world can fall into a deep crisis very quickly. Weeks after Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceau 17 escu basked in the glow of the nearly hour-long standing ovation that marked the reelection meant to extend his forty-year rule, governments across Eastern Europe (East Germany, Poland, and Czechoslovakia) began to crumble. A Ceau 17 escu speech from a balcony overlooking a public square in Bucharest was, for the first time in decades, interrupted by hecklers. Days later, following a brief public trial, his bullet-ridden corpse was tossed into a ditch. When such regimes finally fall, they fall hard.

As mentioned before, the reverse is also true: a closed country can substantially reinforce its stability—and become even more authoritarian—through the implementation of measures that further isolate the nation’s people. When the king of Nepal wants to sack his prime minister’s government and reestablish his own personal authority, he cuts international phone lines, shuts down Internet access, and closes other media outlets. Castro jams antiregime radio broadcasts from Miami. When hard-line Soviet conservatives launched the ill-fated 1991 coup against Gorbachev’s government, early word of the putsch created a race by both sides to television and radio stations. The coup plotters wanted to control the airwaves; opposition groups wanted journalists to continue broadcasting news to the outside world. In 1991, openness triumphed over the attempt to stifle dissent. Unfortunately for Russia, that wasn’t the last time soldiers with rifles entered a Moscow television station.

In any left-side-of-the-curve state, it’s easier to close a country than to open it. But once mature political institutions are fully constructed and embraced by a nation’s people, they are a lot more durable and do far more to protect the viability of the state than any police state tactic can. And communications technology can’t be controlled forever. In February 2005, Chinese citizens celebrated the Lunar New Year by sending and receiving a total of 11 billion text messages. If text-messaging had been as readily available in the spring of 1989, the demonstrations in

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  • (4/5)

    3 people found this helpful

    Excellent book. I reallyed enjoy the style which is more long form magazine piece than heavy academic journal. Worth reading if only to get a clear idea of the challenges posed in moving a closed state to an open and stable position. Maybe a little too down on Iran but all in all a great read.

    3 people found this helpful